Rob Parker and ESPN’s Figures-as-Arguments Culture

ESPN has announced that contributor Rob Parker “has been suspended until further notice.  We are conducting a full review. The comments were inappropriate and we are evaluating our next steps.”

In case you missed it, Parker said on air Thursday morning, during a discussion of Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, “Is [Griffin] a brother, or is he a cornball brother? He added, “We all know he has a white fiancé. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information [about that] at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue.”

Parker got himself in trouble, and the responsibility for his suspension and potential career jeopardy is on him.

But some of this brouhaha stems in part from ESPN’s desire/need for storylines, and the need to turn the sports figures it covers into arguments. Discussing the network’s obsessive coverage of Tim Tebow, the former Denver Broncos star who’s now a bench-warming backup for the New York Jets, The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wrote:

Tebow was a contentious, unsettled question. When an athlete is undeniably good, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to fade into a dull haze of superlatives. (Listening to announcers discuss Tom Brady is like listening to newlyweds talk about a Hawaiian honeymoon). Tebow, on the other hand, was far from a sure thing—even his own team questioned his viability as a pro QB. ESPN was happy to stir this debate. The network already had done the same with other prolonged over-shares like Brett Favre’s post-Packers un-retirement and LeBron James’s escape to Miami. Tebow fit the blueprint. He wasn’t a player. He was an argument.

A large chunk of ESPN’s programming is a combination of columnists, anchors, and former players in suits sitting around a table and arguing: “Around the Horn”, “Pardon the Interruption”, “First Take,” “Mike & Mike” and some segments of SportsCenter. That’s fine; the audience watches it, and it echoes the arguments made by men around water coolers and bar stools and couches across the country. I’ve been listening to sports radio since the early days of “Mike and the Mad Dog” on WFAN up in New York.

But the ubiquitous sports talk format encourages a particular kind of participant, the “provocative,” “controversial” “edgy” voice. This is also a very easy voice to develop; take a major sports figure, and decide that they are the root of all evil or source of all goodness: Jerry Jones, Robert Snyder, the NHL players or owners, etc. Calling for a national ban on oatmeal is provocative and controversial. It’s also pretty dumb. But this ”provocative” style gets attention, and it keeps the conversation impassioned and moving, because the other participants are spurred to express how strongly they disagree with the “provocative,” voice.

So far, Robert Griffin III is playing exceptionally well for a rookie at the game’s most challenging position; the lone controversy around him is whether he should play this week after last week’s injury. You can only talk about lateral collateral ligaments for so long, so some producer at ESPN saw discussion potential in Griffin’s comments:

“For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin,” Griffin said. “You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I strive [for]. I am an African American, in America, and that will never change. But I don’t have to be defined by that.”

“I am [aware] of how race is relevant to [some fans]. I don’t ignore it,” Griffin said Wednesday. “I try not to be defined by it, but I understand different perspectives and how people view different things. So I understand they’re excited their quarterback is an African American. I play with a lot of pride, a lot of character, a lot of heart. So I understand that, and I appreciate them for being fans.”

And once the panel or producers decided to discuss his comments, one of two things would happen. Either the entire panel would agree, and it would be a boring segment. Or someone would disagree… and controversy would inevitably ensue.

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